An Exclusive Corner of Hebron

Dominique Nabokov
Palestinians outside the Mosque of Abraham, which covers the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron, 1976

If you exclude Jerusalem, Hebron has the largest population of any Palestinian city in the West Bank. It is, along with Nablus, a commercial center, and what serves today as its thronging market square brims with life and trade, noise and fumes. There are stores selling groceries and electronics, as well as sidewalk stalls consisting of simple tables laid out with fruit and vegetables, toys, trinkets, and children’s clothes. Those are concentrated especially by the bus station, with its yellow public buses, and by the ranks of taxis and private minibuses, many of them heading north to Bethlehem. Palestinian police, in Palestinian uniforms, direct the traffic. If you walked no further, you would assume that Hebron, home to an estimated 175,000 Palestinians, is a thriving Arab city.

Until, that is, you got close to the crossing point that marks the de facto border between the Palestinian-controlled 80 percent of the city, known as H1, and the Israeli-controlled remainder, known as H2. Not everyone can cross. Since the start of the second intifada, Israeli citizens have been forbidden by their own government from entering H1, just as they are barred from entering the wider Palestinian-controlled Area A of the West Bank. The ruling is based on security grounds, Israel concluding that visible Israelis, especially settlers, would likely be attacked and the Israel Defense Forces insisting that it can guarantee the security of Israeli citizens only in those areas it controls.

Mike King

For those who are permitted, however, crossing the line that separates H1 from H2 is to cross into another realm entirely. For H2, which consists of a substantial eastern chunk of the city, combined with what looks on the map like a wide, stubby finger jabbing westward, includes the historic heart of Hebron. This strip, the finger on the map, might account for no more than 3 percent of the total geographic area of Hebron, but it is here that you find the sites that have made it a place revered by both Muslims and Jews, indeed ranked by Jews alongside Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Safed as one of Judaism’s four holy cities. It is here too that you find an eerie, emptied ghost town whose once-thriving markets stand shuttered and deserted, its Palestinian population subject to a policy of separation and restriction that makes the city the place where Israel’s forty-four-year occupation of the West Bank shows its harshest face.

You can hear the battle for supremacy between the approximately 30,000 Arabs and eight hundred Jewish settlers who live in Israeli-controlled H2 even before you see it. On the crisp, bright morning I visited, there was Hassidic-style klezmer music playing loudly from the Gutnick Center, an event hall that welcomes Jewish visitors from around the world and especially the United States, offering both refreshments and tours, its website reassuring any nervous customers that “all buses are bullet-proof.” Minutes later, those melodies of old Ashkenazi Europe were joined by the traditional muezzin, singing the Muslim call to prayer. The two tunes continued, at full volume, filling the ancient square with dueling, discordant noise. This is Hebron’s so-called loudspeaker war.

Any visit usually begins at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the magnetic core of Hebron’s religious power. Judaism deems the site, recorded in the Bible as the Cave of Machpela, purchased by Abraham, as second in sacred value only to the Temple Mount, that part of ancient Jerusalem on which the First and Second Temples were built. Inside are caskets said to contain the remains of Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham himself, revered as a forefather by the three ancient monotheistic faiths.

As the Jews of Hebron remind visitors, including the busload of African Christians that pulls in, for seven hundred years Jews were barred by the city’s Mameluke, Ottoman, British, and Jordanian rulers from entering this holy site; they were allowed to ascend only the first seven steps toward it. In 1967, when Hebron and the rest of the West Bank were conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War, Jews could at last walk the eighth step, and the fifty-odd more, and enter.

Today, there are separate entrances to the tomb for Jews and for Muslims. But what is more striking is the road approaching the site: it is divided according to nationality, with three quarters of the thoroughfare available to Israelis, and the narrow remainder set aside for Palestinians. Concrete blocks separate the two parts. The Israelis are given the greater portion because they are allowed to drive down this road, a right denied to Palestinians.

On Israeli military maps, this shows up as a green road, which means that no Palestinian cars are allowed. Blue is for those streets where no Palestinian cars are allowed and no Palestinian shops are permitted to open. Then there are roads that are more restricted still: on those, no Palestinian is allowed to set foot. The Israel Defense Forces refer to such a road as a tzir sterili, literally a sterile road.

Most of the H2 Palestinians unlucky enough to have their homes on a tzir sterili have had their front doors sealed shut. To leave, they have to use a back door, which often means climbing out onto the roof and down via a series of ladders: inconvenient for those who are young and fit, difficult if not impossible for those who are old or infirm. Later I will see an elderly man, a bag of cement resting on his shoulder, walking with a boy I take to be his grandson. When he reaches a-Shuhada Street, once the main artery through central Hebron and a “sterile road” since 2000, he turns off and begins to ascend a steep series of rough-hewn steps, necessary in order to walk around rather than on the street. This will lead him through a series of unpaved, dusty paths, a longer, indirect alternative route to a-Shuhada Street. This is so neither his feet nor those of the little boy will touch the forbidden road—ensuring it remains sterili.

The street is lined with what used to be shops, now permanently closed behind green metal shutters. They are all covered by graffiti. In a short walk I see “Arabs out!” and “Death to the Arabs” as well as the less familiar “You have Arabs, you have mice,” which has been painted over but is still legible. So too is “Arabs to the crematorium,” close to the Muslim cemetery. (One notorious message, daubed in English but covered over a few years ago, read “Arabs to the gas chambers.”) The clenched fist symbol of the Kach party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League once ostracized as a fascist, appears in several places. But the most recurrent image is also the most shocking. It is the Star of David. Utterly familiar to Jewish eyes, it nevertheless is a shock to see that symbol—associated with Judaism itself and with the long history of Jewish suffering—used as a crude declaration of dominance, used, in fact, as an insult.

We walk down the center of the road. There is no need to use the sidewalk because the place is empty, like an abandoned film set. My guide, Yehuda Shaul, a kippa-wearing, black-bearded Orthodox Jewish Israeli—who will later mutter the traditional bracha, or blessing, before taking a bite of a sandwich—is intimately familiar with Hebron, having served two extended tours of army duty in the city, spanning the second intifada, first as a regular soldier in 2001–2002 and then again as a commander and company sergeant in 2003. Indeed, he was on patrol when IDF engineers sealed up those front doors, welding them shut, in 2001.

He recalls too the instructions he had not to touch the settlers, who were subject to Israeli law and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Israeli police rather than the army, even though he could see that they were engaged in a campaign of harassment of the local population, throwing stones, cutting water pipes, or severing electricity cables. A soldier has testified to the Breaking the Silence organization—founded by IDF reservists determined to alert their fellow Israelis and Jews around the world to the everyday reality of military occupation—that a sign hung on the briefing wall of his unit, spelling out their mission: “To disrupt the routine of the inhabitants of the neighborhood,” whether through house searches, physical checks, or sudden, surprise checkpoints established in apparently arbitrary locations.

Shaul is not in uniform today but is here as part of his work with Breaking the Silence. He is armed with “before” photographs of central Hebron, dating from 1999, that show a fruit market bustling with people, with produce, and with life. The “after” shot is right in front of me: the very same place, now desolate and silent. What used to be here has been relocated to H1, some of it, at any rate. The teeming marketplace I saw on the other side of the crossing point is in fact part of Bab a-Zawiya, once just a neighborhood of Hebron, now its substitute downtown. Some of those traders in Bab a-Zawiya used to live and work in what is now H2. They once owned shops. They now sell their wares on tables.

Nor is this a mere impression. A study by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem shows that 1,014 housing units—apartments or houses—have been abandoned by their occupants, some 42 percent of the total in this core part of Hebron. One estimate suggests that this amounts to eight or nine thousand people who found that life under such restrictions was no longer viable or bearable. Eventually, I see one of the rare people who have held on, remaining inside H2. An Arab woman is hanging laundry on her balcony on a-Shuhada Street. She is caged on all sides by a mesh of metal wire, including above her head. This is not because of any law or regulation; she has put herself in what looks like a small chicken coop for her own protection, to avoid the stones that would otherwise be thrown at her by settlers.

The roof of the cage is, indeed, weighed down with stones. B’Tselem, which has given cameras to some of the Palestinians of Hebron, has posted several videos showing settlers, including young children, throwing stones at the Arabs in their midst—unrestrained by the Israeli soldiers standing close by. One particularly disturbing film shows a female settler repeatedly hissing the word sharmuta, or whore, at her female Arab neighbor.

Close by is the chicken market, now behind tall concrete slabs. Next comes the old bus station, now in service as an IDF base that doubles as the home of six settler families who have moved in. And then, around the corner, behind a rusting gate, is a scrapyard, filled with junk, weeds, and coils of barbed wire. Shaul produces a photograph that reveals that this dumping ground used to be Hebron’s jewelry market. (A few individual jewelers now ply their trade in Palestinian-controlled H1, but the market itself has not been reconstituted.) On the other side of the street is a yeshiva.

It is this—Jews and Arabs living next to each other—that makes central Hebron exceptional, at least outside Jerusalem. While Jewish settlements are found throughout the West Bank, they are usually on hilltops adjacent to, or overlooking, Palestinian towns and villages. But in this part of central Hebron, they are found within, in four clusters referred to as settlements but that often amount to just a few houses and buildings surrounded by Palestinians. Three of them are on or just off a-Shuhada Street; the fourth is a short walk away.

And so you only have to take a few steps away from the emptied fruit market to walk into Avraham Avinu—literally, Abraham, Our Father—the largest of the Jewish enclaves in Hebron, home to some forty families. Inside it is another country. The walls are made of a scrubbed, flat stone that contrasts with the dust and age outside. There is a children’s playground, with young Orthodox mothers, their heads covered, playing with their kids, the latter apparently unaware that there are approximately six hundred IDF soldiers around, chiefly for their protection. There is a rack for bicycles and in the air the distinct aroma of chicken soup. It could be any of the more well-heeled neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. There are plaques everywhere, a sight not uncommon in Jerusalem—except almost all of these are in memory of people killed by “Arab terrorists.” The benefactors thanked are Jewish families from New York, London, and elsewhere.

This division of Hebron into H1 and H2 was the result of the Hebron Protocol of January 1997, signed by Yasser Arafat and Binyamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister. Special arrangements were deemed necessary for the sake of the few hundred Jewish settlers inside Hebron, whom Israel believed it had to protect with its own forces. In the years since, protection has come to mean a series of ever more stringent steps to keep the Jews and Arabs apart by restricting the Palestinians’ ability to move within H2. Every time there has been a terror attack on the Jewish settlers—the most notorious being the murder of a ten-month old baby, Shalhevet Pass, by a sniper’s bullet in 2001—the settlers have demanded and usually won either a further tightening of Palestinian movement or Israeli state permission for expansion or both. Bit by bit, central Hebron has been emptied, the Palestinians hemmed in ever more claustrophobically, so that the settlers can move freely and without fear, their safety guaranteed by the IDF.

It is probably fruitless to attempt to define the beginning of this situation. For the Jewish community of Hebron, the last hundred years are a mere interlude, the decisive event coming several thousand years ago when Abraham made his purchase of Machpela. Still, many light upon 1929 and the massacre of sixty-seven Jews by Arabs in Hebron as the pivotal date. They believe that that traumatic event reveals an essential truth about the conflict with the Palestinians: that the Arab objection to Jews predates, and therefore has little to do with, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 or the occupation of the West Bank in 1967. To the settlers, the 1929 massacre shows that the Arabs have a murderous intolerance of Jews in their midst. If a heavy military presence and onerous security measurements are necessary, then that is why.

Until 1929, Jews had lived in significant numbers in the city. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, British forces evacuated the surviving Jews to Jerusalem, though a year later the Arab leaders of the city invited them back. Some thirty or so families accepted the invitation, then left again during the disturbances of 1936. One Jew, a milkman, is said to have stayed on until 1947, but after that, for two decades, there were none. Still, when Hebron was captured by Israeli forces in 1967 it was, say the settlers, only natural that Jews should return. Their presence there now is, they insist, no foreign, colonial enterprise, but rather a homecoming, delayed for too long.

The manner of the return is certainly susceptible to mythmaking. For the first Passover after Hebron’s “liberation,” a group of eighty-eight Orthodox Jews, led by the charismatic Rabbi Moshe Levinger, checked into the city’s Arab-owned Park Hotel to hold a seder. They stayed and refused to leave. Eventually, Israel’s Labor-led government suggested a compromise: the squatters would be allowed to move into a nearby IDF base where homes would be built for them. Thus was born Kiryat Arba, now a city of more than seven thousand next to Hebron, the first step in the entire West Bank settlement project. Levinger would go on to be a founder of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), later serving jail time for shooting dead a Palestinian store owner. But Hebron was where he took his first stand.

His heirs today do not feel any need to justify the effects of their presence on the Palestinians who live in H2. On the contrary, the Jewish community in Hebron regards itself as the victim. “People say there’s apartheid here,” says David Wilder, their New Jersey–born spokesman. “I agree, there is—but it’s not against them, it’s against us.” He points to the fact that the Casbah, inside H2, is a closed military zone and therefore off-limits, save for a few hours on the Sabbath, to Jews. He argues that, in effect, Jews have access to only 3 percent of the city—where the Israeli security presence is sufficiently intense—while Arabs have access to all the rest. Sure, he concedes, there’s one street, maybe a kilometer, a kilometer and a half, that the Arabs can’t walk on. Does he mean a-Shuhada Street? “I don’t know what they call it. We call it David Ha’Melech [King David] Street.” That road used to be open, until the second intifada, says Wilder—in fact, save for a few months the road was barred to Palestinian cars from 1994—“but they started shooting at us” from the nearby hills.

Still, he insists, he and his fellow Jews have “never said that for us to live here, no one else can live here,” whereas he believes that the Palestinians will permit no Jewish presence in Hebron in a future Palestinian state. It is the Jews who are the tolerant ones. As for the graffiti, he says, “We’re not particularly fond of it,” but he refuses to condemn it, calling it an “outlet” for settler youth “frustrated by terror attacks and the activities of the Israeli government against them.”

Wilder’s message—that if the Palestinians stopped threatening the settlers with violence, the restrictions could be eased—runs counter to experience. When, for example, the US-born Baruch Goldstein killed twenty-nine Palestinian Muslim worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, Israel imposed new restrictions—not on the settlers but on Hebron’s Arabs. The vegetable and meat markets were closed, and the ban on Palestinian cars on a-Shuhada Street introduced. (It’s striking that, far from being reviled as a terrorist and murderer in Hebron, Goldstein is buried in the Meir Kahane Memorial Park, which comes under the auspices of the Kiryat Arba municipal authority.)

Still, and despite the twenty-four-hour armed protection they are given—Shaul testifies that as a soldier his orders were very clear: “We’re here to protect the settlers”—Hebron’s Jews appear to regard the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli state as their adversary. A poster in the Bab al-Khan neighborhood in H2, emptied of all but a handful of its former Arab residents with its gates to the Old City now sealed and bolted shut, declares in Hebrew: “Here’s where the ghetto begins. No entry for Jews.” Elsewhere, a spray-painted slogan denounces what it regards as the godless state of Israel: “We have no faith in the regime of the infidels, we follow the path of Torah.” Another seeks a regime governed by religious law: “We want a halacha state of Judea now.” Still another urges, “Death to the traitors of the King,” the King being God.

In this dispute, with the settlers hostile to an Israeli government that denies them the run of Hebron in its entirety, the Palestinians are caught in the middle. They dismiss the settlers’ suggestion that it is only a small fraction of the city from which Palestinians are barred, a relatively modest imposition on their lives. Issa Amro, thirty-one years old and active in organizing nonviolent protest in Hebron, says, “H2 is the center of the city…. All the markets were there: the vegetable market, the fruit market, the camel market, the meat market, the blacksmith market, all the markets were in H2. It is the heart of the city. And if your heart is sick, your whole body will be affected.”

He explains that the restrictions, even if applied to a superficially narrow area, have a far-reaching effect. Families are split between H1 and H2, making it hard for relatives to see each other, especially those who live on H2 streets barred to Palestinian cars or pedestrians. And it has a wider impact: if you want to drive north to south through Hebron, you have to take a long, convoluted route on congested roads. Shaul imagines the equivalent move in Jerusalem, shutting down Jaffa Street and the Old City. It might only account for less than 1 percent of the municipal territory, he says, but it would include the main road and the historic monuments. “What’s the impact that has on a city?”

Some admit that what one sees in central Hebron is ugly, but console themselves that it is an extreme case typical only of itself. For others, though, Hebron is an intense, distilled version of the wider Israeli occupation. Yehuda Shaul places himself, reluctantly, in the latter camp. “This is a microcosm,” he tells me. “Walk here and you understand how the West Bank functions: the separation, the land grab, the sterile roads, the violence.” Nor does he reassure himself that Hebron is the handiwork of a few hard-core settlers. The presence of the IDF shatters that delusion, as does the plaque from the Housing Ministry on the settler building of Beit HaShisha, a seal of government approval that dates back to 2000, when the supposedly center-left leader Ehud Barak was prime minister. Twenty-one buses depart every weekday, more than one an hour, from the Jewish settlements inside H2 to Jerusalem, offering cheap, government-subsidized fares. Shaul’s grievance is not with the settlers alone, but with the state.

For people like Shaul, proud Israeli patriots and conscientious Jews, Hebron poses a more profound challenge than can be captured by the bland diplomatese of “obstacles to peace” and the like. For them it is about more than a fault line in a bitter, territorial dispute. “What’s being done here is in the name of God and in the name of my state,” he says, in a voice much older than his twenty-eight years.

Shaul has become well known in Hebron. On the steps of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a settler spots him and shouts, several times, that he is a traitor to his people. But there is a face better known than his and I see it within two minutes of arriving in Hebron. In a wheelchair, the consequence of a stroke in 2007, is a white-haired old man in a Panama hat, being pushed by a young, devout caregiver. He is Moshe Levinger, the man who started it all, out for his daily dose of fresh air. I catch up and ask whether, when he holed himself up inside the Park Hotel all those years ago, he ever imagined it would lead to this, the center of Hebron cleared and emptied for the sake of his fellow settlers. “No,” the rabbi says, he foresaw no such thing. He points a finger toward the sky. “It is a blessing of God.”


A Grave Threat to Zionism’: An Exchange April 5, 2012